Common Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) of Australia's Eastern Coasts and Islands

by DerdriuMarriner

In Americanese, the word possum can apply to an opossum. In Australia, it cannot. One of the Land Down Under's most beautiful and beloved possums is the common ringtail.

Australia’s possum carries a name which originates in the Americas. The word comes from the Eastern Algonquian peoples in what is now eastern Virginia’s tidewater regions:
• Eastern Shore;
• Hampton Roads;
• Middle and Virginia Peninsulas;
• Northern Neck.

Knowledge of the extinct language derives from wordlists recorded by:
• Lincolnshire-born explorer Captain John Smith (baptized January 6, 1580 – June 21, 1631) in 1607 - 1609;
• Essex-born historian William Strachey (April 4, 1572 – buried June 21, 1621) in 1610 – 1611.

Opossum functions as an Anglicization of Powhatan for “white animal.” Possum properly identifies Australian marsupials that reminded Captain James Cook’s (Nov. 7, 1728 – Feb. 14, 1779) botanist, Sir Joseph Banks (Feb. 24, 1743 – June 19, 1820), of Virginia’s opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

Pseudocheirus peregrinus: depicted under common name of Grey Queensland Ring-Tail

illustration by Neville William Cayley (January 7, 1886 - March 17, 1950)
Ellis Troughton, Furred Animals of Australia (1947), opp. p. 112, Plate VIII, Figure 1
Ellis Troughton, Furred Animals of Australia (1947), opp. p. 112, Plate VIII, Figure 1


The designation ringtail possum currently acknowledges 17 living species within the marsupial family Pseudocheiridae. The family name addresses as the most important ringtail commonality the structural feature of grasping paws reminiscent of humans in the presence of opposable digits. It comes from the combination of the ancient Greek words ψευδής (pseudēs, “beguiled, deceived, false, lying, untrue”), χειρό- (cheiró-, “hand”), and εἶδος (eidos, “appearance, look, sight”). But all ringtail possums additionally draw attention to the aesthetic and functional look of their beautifully practical tails. A ringtail possum’s tail ends in an attractive tip that frequently is coiled or ready to coil as a grasping anchor or balance and that sometimes may be slightly -- or starkly -- different in color.


Common ringtail possums are perhaps the best known and the most accessible of all ring-tailed possums. They carry the binomial (“two names”) taxonomic designation Pseudocheirus peregrinus. The species name goes back to the Latin word peregrīnus. It has the meaning of “alien, exotic, foreign” as a masculine adjective and of “foreigner, traveler” as a masculine noun. It therefore hypothesizes a migrant, pilgrim or wanderer who may be here one minute and go missing the next. It currently includes four subspecies:

  • Pseudocheirus peregrinus peregrinus;
  • P.p. convolutor (from the Latin masculine past participle convolūtus for “rolled up”);
  • P.p. pulcher (from the Latin masculine adjective pulcher for “beautiful, fair”);
  • P.p. occidentalis. (from the Latin feminine/masculine adjective occidentālis for “westerly, western”).


Tasmania's King Island has a population of ringtail possums:

Situated about halfway between northwestern Tasmanian mainland and southwestern coast of Victoria, King Island's east coast faces Bass Strait and west coast views Great Australian Bight.
Currie, central western coast of King Island, Great Australian Bight, Tasmania, southeastern Australia
Currie, central western coast of King Island, Great Australian Bight, Tasmania, southeastern Australia


The four subspecies of the common ringtail possum articulate differences in geographical distribution and variations in pelt color. By merging distinct and overlapping environmental niches, scientists attribute to common ringtail possums a spatial presence that is most notable in:

  • Bass Strait islands;
  • Coastal eastern Australia at New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria;
  • Fraser Island;
  • New Guinea;
  • Tasmania.

Southwestern-most West Australia belongs on the list of places to find common ringtail possums as long as scientists do not reduce the number of subspecies to three. Some experts expect the fourth subspecies, Pseudocheirus peregrinus occidentalis, to be upgraded to species status as Pseudocheirus occidentalis. Others find geographical isolation and structural variations nevertheless consistent with the western ringtail’s subspecies status.


Range of Western Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus occidentalis)

"Distribution data from IUCN Red List."
"Distribution data from IUCN Red List."

Range of Common Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) range (blue — native, red — introduced):

exception: exclusion of range of Western Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus occidentalis
"Distribution data from IUCN Red List."
"Distribution data from IUCN Red List."


Colors act as camouflage by catching the play of light and shadow in the coastal and near-coastal habitats of common ringtail possums.  Grey-brown covers the upper body. Grey-, orange- and red-brown dominates the limbs. White embellishes:

  • Big brown eyes;
  • Pink nose and rounded ears;
  • Sensory whiskers.

It emerges from a mouth of teeth whose dental formula configures:

  • 6 incisors, 2 canines, 6 premolars, and 8 molars equally divided between the left and right upper jaws;
  • 4 incisors, 6 premolars, and 8 molars evenly spread over the left and right lower jaws.

It ends the bottom third of a prehensile tail that is:

  • Coiled when unused;
  • Dark at the base;
  • Hairless at the tip and underneath;
  • Furry above.


skull of Pseudocheirus peregrinus, viewed from above:

illustration by M.H. (Maud Horman) Fisher in Oldfield Thomas, Catalogue of the Marsupialia (1888)
Plate XIX, Figure 2
Plate XIX, Figure 2

side view: skull and upper and lower jaws of Pseudocheirus peregrinus

illustration by M.H. Fisher in Oldfield Thomas, Catalogue of the Marsupialia (1888)
Plate XVIII, Figure 5
Plate XVIII, Figure 5


The yearly breeding months are March through November. From sexual maturity at 12 months onward, ringtails become parents to twins or triplets once or twice yearly, with litters delivered during the months of:

  • May to July;
  • October.

As the only possum species that includes paternal involvement in caring for and raising the young, both parents-to-be build dreys (spherical nests) of shredded bark, grasses and leaves. Gestation demands 4 months. Hairless newborns enter the frontal maternal pouch without parental assistance. They have their ears and eyes opened 3 – 3-1/2 months after birth. At 4 months, they move from pouch-living on 4 mammary sources of maternal milk to nomadic life in the family dreys and on their parents’ backs.


The foliage of spotted gum tree (Eucalyptus maculata) is favored by Pseudocheirus peregrinus.

Eucalyptus maculata (Spotted Gum) flower and foliage, Drysdale, Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria state, southeast Australia
Eucalyptus maculata (Spotted Gum) flower and foliage, Drysdale, Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria state, southeast Australia


Immature ringtail possums begin eating solid food upon emerging from maternal pouches. The timing coordinates with peak freshness of flowers, fruits, leaves, and nectar of:

  • Bottle brush (CallistemonGrevillea);
  • Eucalyptus and gum (AngophoraCorymbiaEucalyptus);
  • Oleander and wattle (Acacia);
  • She-oak (Allocasuarina);
  • Tea tree (Leptospermum).

The rufous (red-brown) youths dominate:

  • Communicating by high-pitched, soft twitters;
  • Foraging and foraying, dusk to midnight and pre-dawn;
  • Producing hard nocturnal pellets for territory-marking and soft diurnal pellets for rabbit-like coprophagia (digestion and re-elimination after nutrient access, especially of soluble nitrogen).

They live independently at 8 – 12 months. They mature to:

  • Head-and-body and tail lengths, generally of 11.75 – 13.75 inches (29.84 – 34.92 centimeters) respectively;
  • Weights, typically of 1.25 – 3 pounds (566.99 – 1,360.78 grams). 


orphaned ringtail possums

"peeking possum: orphaned ringtails in their pouch"
"peeking possum: orphaned ringtails in their pouch"


Paired common ringtail possums adhere to nomadic living within scent-marked home ranges of 7.5 acres (3.03 hectares). They commence with a minimum of five dreys, whose number increases with every litter. They construct their series of football-sized nests along canopied branches, on higher forks, and within upper hollows in dense shrubs and trees 6.5+ feet (2+ meters) above ground-level. They enter by a 3.25 – 4-inch (8.26 – 10.16-centimeter) side entrance. Each 9.75 – 11.75 (24.76 – 29.84-centimeter) nest fits several, who sleep with bodies and tails curled tightly into small balls. An arboreal, gregarious, nocturnal, nomadic life cycle around and within homey nests which they build themselves therefore is what common ringtail possums historically expect for themselves and their descendants.


common ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus):

daytime roost in suburban Jacaranda tree.
Brisbane, southeastern Queensland state, east Australian coast
Brisbane, southeastern Queensland state, east Australian coast


But the security of the past does not continue unabated into the present -- and therefore possibly the future -- of the common ringtail possum. Common ringtail possums consequently expect current lifespans of 3 years in the wild and 10 – 12 years in captivity. They in fact face so many environmental challenges that at least one newborn per year generally cannot expect to survive the first year of existence. They find that their traditional habitats are prime locations for the widening wildland-urban interface in Planet Earth’s super-island continent and country “down under.”  Common ringtail possums indeed inhabit coastal, insular and near-coastal niches within Australia’s diverse expressions of dense temperate and tropical brush in:

  • Forests;
  • Heathlands;
  • Shrublands;
  • Woodlands. 


Ninox strenua munching on ring tailed possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus)
Ninox strenua munching on ring tailed possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus)

Conclusion: Survival of Australia's dexterous native ringtail possums


Common names accentuate the common ringtail possum’s predictable colors and distribution:

  • Eastern ringtail;
  • Grey ringtail;
  • Queensland ringtail;
  • Rufous ringtail;
  • Tasmanian ringtail;
  • Western ringtail.

Conservation statisticians generally apply an unthreatened status to the three eastern subspecies of this buck-toothed diprotodont (“two forward-projecting teeth”) despite:

  • Habitat destruction and fragmentation;
  • Predation by dingoes, foxes, owls, and pythons;
  • Road fatalities;
  • Wildfire casualties.

They simultaneously attribute vulnerability status to the western subspecies affectionately nicknamed ngwayir. But conservation-minded professionals and supporters fortunately endeavor to include within Australia’s future all four “false-handed” subspecies, each of whose forepaws' two opposable digits so impressed Middleburg-born Dutch naturalist and Elenchus Animalium publisher Pieter Boddaert (May 26, 1733 – May 6, 1795) with their dexterity way back in 1785.  


Pseudocheirus peregrinus depicted under former synonym of Phalangista viverrina

illustration by John Gould (September 14, 1804 - February 3, 1881)
John Gould, Mammals of Australia, Vol. I, Plate 19
John Gould, Mammals of Australia, Vol. I, Plate 19



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


Sadly this ringtail possum is not playing possum.

dead possum
dead possum

Sources Consulted


Abbott, J.H.M. (John Henry Macartney). 1908. The South Seas (Melanesia). With twelve full-page illustrations in colour by Norman Hardy, F.R.G.S. London: Adam and Charles Black.

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"Autumn 2002 Marsupial of the Season: The Ring-tailed Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus)." The Marsupial Society of Australia. Retrieved on February 22, 2014.

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Bassarova, M.; Archer, M.; and Hand, S.J. December 20, 2001. “New Oligo-Miocene Pseudocheirids (Marsupialia) of the Genus Paljara from Riversleigh, Northwestern Queensland.” Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists 25:61-75. 

Boddaert, Pieter. Table des planches enluminéez d'histoire naturelle de M. D'Aubenton: avec les denominations de M.M. de Buffon, Brisson, Edwards, Linnaeus et Latham, precedé d'une notice des principaux ouvrages zoologiques enluminés. Utrecht: [s.n.], MDCCLXXXIII (1783). Retrieved on February 22, 2014.

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"Common Ringtail: Pseudocheirus peregrinus." Pp. 120-121 in Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Volume 13: Mammals II, edited by Michael Hutchins, Devra G. Kleiman, Valerius Geist, and Melissa C. McDade. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, Inc., division of Thomson Learning Inc., 2004.

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Flannery, Timothy F. 1994. Possums of the World: A Monograph of the Phalangeroidea. Chastwood, Australia: GEO Productions in association with the Australian Museum.

Gould, John. 1863. Mammals of Australia. Volume I. London: John Gould.

Kerle, Jean Anne. 2001. Possums: The Brushtails, Ringtails and Greater Glider. Sydney: University of New South Wales Australian Natural History Series. Retrieved on February 22, 2014. 

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Menkhorst, Peter; and Knight, Frank. 2001. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 

Meredith, Robert W.; Mendoza, Miguel A.; Roberts, Karen K.; Westerman, Michael; and Springer, Mark S. March 2, 2010. “A Phylogeny and Timescale for the Evolution of Pseudocheiridae (MarsupialiaDiprotodontia) in Australia and New Guinea.” Journal of Mammalian Evolution17(2):75-99. Retrieved on February 22, 2014.

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Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. Volume I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Nowak, Ronald M. 2005. Walker's Marsupials of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

O'Shea, Amanda. 2012. Poppy and Max. Publishing.

Pahl, L.I. 1984. "Diet preference, diet composition and population density of the Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus cooki) in several plant communities in southern Victoria." Pages 252 - 260. In: A.P. Smith and I.D. Hume, eds., Possums and Gliders. Sydney: Surrey-Beatty and Sons.

Pahl, L.I. 1987. "Feeding-Behavior and Diet of the Common Ringtail Possum, Pseudocheirus-Peregrinus, in Eucalyptus Woodlands and Leptospermum Thickets in Southern Victoria." Australian Journal of Zoology, Volume 35 (Issue 5): 487-506. 

Strahan, Ronald, and Pamela Conder. 2007. Dictionary of Australian and New Guinean Mammals. CSIRO Publishing.

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the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Poppy the ringtail possum and Max the echidna share adventures:

"Poppy the possum is in terrible trouble. Her plum tree is no longer home sweet home, the farmer is after her, and she's gone for a ride on a dog. To cap it all, a tumble onto a passing echidna has left her with a bottomful of prickles."
Poppy And Max

Must read: second joint book of husband-and-wife team zoologist Ronald Strahan and artist-author-naturalist Patricia Conder

Serving as Director of Taronga Zoological Park, Sydney, Australia, 1967–74 numbers among Ronald Strahan's achievements;
Dictionary of Australian and New Guinean Mammals

ringtail possum emerging from nest drey to feed at night, Yellingbo Nature Reserve, Victoria state, southeast Australia

photo by Jason Edwards
Ringtail Possum Emerging from Nest Drey to Feed at Night, Yellingbo Nature Reserve, Australia

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 10/19/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 02/24/2014

VioletteRose, Widening the circle of acquaintances for Australia's ringtail possum is a pleasure.

VioletteRose on 02/24/2014

Great to know about this animal, again something new for me!

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